A salmon farm in a fjord in Norway.
A salmon farm in a fjord in Norway.
Image: 123RF / Jan-Dirk Hansen

The indentured servants of the early European settlers in America had a clause in their contracts stipulating that salmon wouldn’t be served to them more than once a week. The fish was as ubiquitous and cheap as tinned sardines are now. Hard to believe from a modern perspective. Most of us can’t remember a time when salmon wasn’t another word for luxury, and it’s an attitude we’ve held onto even though the fish is now readily available.

The Norwegians were among the first big-time salmon farmers in the 1960s. They were scarily good at it. Their fisheries embarked on Project Salmon in Japan in the ’80s, aimed at marketing the fish as a viable sushi and sashimi option. The Japanese were hugely resistant as the wild salmon in their own waters held dangerous parasites when eaten raw. But salmon from other waters seemed to be ok, and once the Japanese had been won over, the globe was next.

Quantity rarely equals quality. Much salmon available today is a flaccid and tasteless shadow of its wild relatives — and it’s hardly surprising. Often, the fish live too close together and are fed an unnatural diet, often including antibiotics. Many are riddled with deformities, sea lice, and wounds that don’t heal. Farmed salmon have, both by adaptation and breeding decisions, become maladjusted to wild surrounds. Adult farm escapees and younglings from hatcheries can devastate already-threatened wild stocks, through the spread of disease and alteration of the gene pool.

It’s sad but true: salmon on a menu usually represents ecological disaster. It also represents some weirdness: a curious invention called the DSM SalmoFan is a pantone chart for fish farmers. Boasting a “fan” of coralesque hues, from deepest scarlet to baby pink, it allows producers to choose feed to create their preferred flesh hue. Feeds contain differing amounts of the carotenoid astaxanthin, found in the natural diet of wild salmon. There seem to be no health issues around astaxanthin, but isn’t it surreal to think that the salmon fillet on your plate would be almost grey without it? Today’s salmon is something of a bizarre social construct: the SalmoFan people tell producers that darker hues are usually favoured by “affluent consumers” — and that a paler product is “more frequently purchased by minority groups”. Wow.

Don’t bother looking for the wild ones, locally. All of our imports are farmed. There are some (relatively) sustainable farmed options on the market, but labels are often misleading. Your best bet is local, sustainably farmed, rainbow trout. For the full lowdown, watch the brilliant documentary Artifishal. You’ll probably never touch salmon again.

WATCH | Artifishal trailer (warning: not for sensitive viewers):

• From the August edition of Wanted 2019.

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